Placing the galss in a custom, airtight metal frame for a unique archival document.

Preserving NIH science at the National Library of Medicine

By Holly Herro and Kristi Wright ~

Over the past ten years, conservation staff of the NLM’s History of Medicine Division have developed and published on a non-destructive method called Photoshop Assisted Spectroscopy, and subsequently used it to identify the proper storage conditions for Nobel Laureate Marshall Nirenberg’s ground-breaking work in deciphering the genetic code.   This year, we are thrilled to be presenting a poster at the NIH Research Festival: A Celebration of Intramural Science, a multi-day event held here on the Bethesda, Maryland, campus of the NIH, involving symposia, poster presentations, special research exhibits, plenary sessions, tributes, and award presentations.

Two men talk in front of a scientific poster.
Dr. Marshall Nirenberg, Nobel Laureate, NHLBI (l), listens to a point made by Dr. Stuart Aaronson, NCI.
NIH Record, October 21, 1986

The first NIH Research Festival, then called the NIH Research Day, was held in 1986 and Marshall Nirenberg was there presenting a poster.  The festival has been held annually since then, with the sole exception of 1987, when NIH celebrated its centennial instead.  Many years after that first festival, the 2010 Research Festival was dedicated to Marshall Nirenberg because, in the words of NIH director Francis Collins, “There is probably no one here whose work is not dependent in some way on his legacy… in many ways, he was really the soul of the [intramural research] program.”

And we are remembering Nirenberg again through the poster we are presenting at this year’s NIH Research Festival.

Research poster with informaiton about Nirenberg, his chart, conservation analysis, fabrication of an airtight enclosure and installation of the artifact.

The conservation staff at the National Library of Medicine are honored to work with Nirenberg’s Genetic Code Charts, sometimes called the Rosetta stone of modern science. Our poster presents information about the customized storage environment developed for the charts after careful testing and analysis.  Photoshop Assisted Spectroscopy allowed us to perform digital analysis on the effects of different environments on the chart materials.  A review of the results indicated that the charts should be stored in an anoxic environment to preserve them for future generations.  NLM conservation staff selected commercially available air-tight enclosures and collaborated with Robert Clary from the NIH Division of Scientific Equipment and Instrumentation Services (DSEIS) fabrication staff to optimize them for the charts’ storage.  The poster presents some of the details of the framing system and highlights the cross-institute collaboration that enabled its implementation.

There is precedent for using anoxic enclosures for the long-term preservation of highly cherished artifacts.  Other items that have been placed in anoxic enclosures include the Charters of Freedom, the Magna Carta, the Waldseemüller map, and the Gettysburg Addresses.   Many materials degrade steadily in the presence of oxygen, so removing that component from the atmosphere surrounding the document and replacing it with an inert gas instead is sometimes beneficial.  However, without careful knowledge of the unique materials present on an artifact, there is no guarantee that anoxia will be beneficial and, in some cases, it can even be harmful.  Great care must be taken prior to moving forward with an anoxic storage plan, so the decision to put the Genetic Code Charts in anoxic storage has been no small task, and the project team members are honored to share the process with the NIH community, and join in the celebration of NIH Intramural Science, through this year’s NIH Research Festival.

Holly Herro is Senior Conservator for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

Kristi Wright is a contract conservator for the Conservation Program of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine and principal of Wright Conservation and Framing.

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